Historically liberal state Legislature has numbers to back up reputation


In their dash to repeal as many Rick Snyder-era policies as possible, the 2023 Democratic-controlled Michigan Legislature has earned the most liberal voting record in at least the last 20 years, and there are plenty of numbers to prove it.

Since 2003, I’ve compiled an annual “most conservative/most liberal” ranking for the Michigan House and Senate based on select roll-call voters covering a wide range of topics.

As many as 50 votes on abortion restrictions, corporate incentives, gun possession, tax policy changes, etc., are thrown into the soup.

The bell-curve chart born from this project is predictable. Around five members in each chamber stand out for making seemingly odd-ball votes for philosophical reasons.

For example, one bill would allow law enforcement to share the contact information of sexual assault victims with support service programs. Seems like common sense to do, right? In the eyes of a small-government conservative, however, this is expanding the power of government. 

From these few members, the bell curve rises until a majority of a caucus falls in the 75% range. For Republicans, a majority of their members vote conservative 75% of the time. For Democrats, a majority vote liberal 75% of the time. 

Each caucus has a few philosophical outliers. Once in a while, the most conservative Democrat has even a more conservative voting record than the most liberal Republican.

For the last 19 years, the bell curve has looked consistent. The average liberal voting record for every Democratic House member for the last 19 years has been 75.95%.

This year, however, the average House Democrat voted the liberal position 94.5% of the time on the 49 bills we tracked. Nearly every time.

This is 10 percentage points higher than the previous high mark of 84.37% from 2007, coincidentally the year after Democrats won the majority after another lengthy drought.

The lowest liberal ranking among Democrats was that of Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit, at 86%. Outside of Whitsett, no other Democrat had a score lower than 92%.

With a Democratic Senate and Gretchen Whitmer in the governor’s chair, the House went on overdrive. They rolled back years of old Republican policy wins, like a teacher evaluation system that punished teachers whose students didn’t improve year after year.

We shared the results with former Inside Michigan Politics Editor Bill Ballenger, who did similar rankings as far back as the mid-1980s. He called this year’s results “unprecedented” and “outstanding.”

I have less than half of the experience Ballenger does in Michigan politics, but I agree with him. With the slimmest majority the Democrats could have, they pushed through progressive gun restrictions, civil rights expansions and higher penalties on hate crimes with the same 56 votes and often unanimous Republican opposition.

Democrats who serve in liberal havens like Ann Arbor were casting the same votes as Democrats who live in political swing areas like Downriver, Marquette or Traverse City.

This would seem to be a dream scenario for Republicans come 2024, who can frame Democrats in competitive seats like Rep. Jenn Hill or Rep. Betsy Coffia as ult-lib activists.

The problem with that approach is that recent polling shows a majority of voters support many of the “liberal” votes these lawmakers made, or, at the very least, the subject can be framed in a way that it receives majority support.

Progress Michigan’s polling released Monday found 79% support for the new universal free breakfast and lunch program for K-12 students. Another 85% support “the decision to stop taxing Michiganders’ pension,” which isn’t exactly accurate, but good enough for a campaign ad.

For now, anyway, what Democrats will have the hardest time justifying is their vote to allow the state to site solar and wind farms.

But 59% claim they support requiring utilities to draw from 100% clean energy sources by 2040, so maybe that vote will age well in time?

Either way, this House is undeniably more liberal than at any time in the past 20 years. Whether it matches the public’s sentiment, we’ll find out in about a year.


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